A nearby explosion interrupted Adel Abdulaziz as he described over the telephone the perils of living in lawless, occupied Baghdad.
"Oh my God, oh my God — a big bomb went off," said the East Valley businessman, who moved to Iraq four weeks ago. "It just moved the house!"
Such violence is why Abdulaziz, 36, told his wife, who remains in Mesa, it was still too dangerous for her to come with their two children, ages 4 years and 19 months.
As for himself, Abdulaziz said in a recent telephone interview with the Tribune that he will stay and take advantage of the opportunities in wartime Iraq. Construction and business are booming along with the bombs, he said, and the risks are a worthwhile trade for the benefits of visiting family members and helping to build a new Iraq.
Abdulaziz, whose family owns Middle Eastern restaurants in Gilbert and Tempe, said the mood in Iraq is conflicted. While chaos reigns, normalcy somehow persists. Fear is diluted by optimism, he said.
"There is a lot of hope it’s going to change here," he said.
Before last month, Abdulaziz had not been back to Iraq since 1976, when he was a boy. His wife, Neda Raji, left in 1998 after growing up through the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and the war to liberate Kuwait.
Both wanted to return to their home country — at least for a while — but decided Abdulaziz would go first to scope things out.
He flew to Jordan, then met with friends and relatives who drove him to Fallujah, the insurgent stronghold where Raji’s parents live. His friends wrapped him in Arab dress to hide his hair, which was shaved and looked "too American."
Life in Baghdad is "unique," he said. On one hand, many residents are thriving. Restaurants and stores are open — and some are quite busy. On the other hand, police officers are getting shot in the streets, and well-armed gangsters are terrorizing, robbing and kidnapping residents with impunity, Abdulaziz said.
Soon after arriving, Raji’s father took Abdulaziz to a bombed-out military base to teach him how to use a Kalashnikov rifle, he said.
"Today or tomorrow I’m going to buy one," he said. "I never go out alone anywhere."
Electricity is on for three hours and off for three hours. When it’s out, the water pump also stops working. Fortunately, the water — when flowing — tastes "much better than in Phoenix," he said.
Abdulaziz said he has seen a robbery at an Internet cafe and a deadly explosion near the Green Zone, the fortified stronghold of American power in Baghdad. By now, he has grown accustomed to the violence. Hearing a loud explosion while talking on the telephone, Abdulaziz gets excited only for a minute before continuing the conversation.
"We’re used to it," he said. "Every day there are two or three bombs going off."
One of the biggest problems people talk about is the influx of foreign fighters in the country who may be committing crimes against Iraqis and U.S. troops, he said. Baghdad residents believe civil war will erupt if the United States pulls out of Iraq — but they also believe the United States might never leave, he said.
Abdulaziz said he plans to stay for a few months or longer. He is going to court in an attempt to recover two houses owned by his family that were taken years ago by Saddam Hussein’s regime, he said. Also, his status as a U.S. citizen means he can travel to and from the Green Zone, a relatively secure area where restaurants and other businesses are doing well, he said.
"There are so many opportunities I could never see in the United States," he said. "It is possible to make a life here."
Raji, who lives with her husband’s family members in Mesa, said she wants to visit Baghdad as soon as possible.
"I don’t want to do it until it’s secure," she said.